While it may appear that I am lost in the Twitter-Sphere, making jokes about German Plagiator and Defense Minister KT von Guttenberg as well as attempting at least to be one of the Western voices, however small, to give support to the admirable struggle of those in Egypt and Bahrain and Algeria and Iran and wherever else people are standing up for their own freedom, I am still writing.
So here, in progress, raw and unedited (as to give people the ability later to look at the raw content when they come after me they way I come after Guttenberg), are the first 15,000 words of The Watchmaker's Wings, or the first two chapters.
Some people who have read this blog may be surprised, haven't I already done the first two chapters? Yes, see, that is what I mean by "in progress" I put the first two together together to form the "new" first chapter, so that each chapter will run an approximate length of 7,000 to 8,000 words. That way I can give it a structure.
But enough about me. Here is young Mr. Goodhall, Misty McColl... oh, and did I mention that there's an angel about to make an appearance?
BEING ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE
OF TIME AND ABOUT A SERIES OF
SMALL MIRACLES, ALL OF WHICH
ARE ABOUT TO CHANGE A CERTAIN
YOUNG MR. GOODHALL'S LIFE
Now, if there was one thing that young Mr. Goodhall was sure of, it was this – everything could be fixed. If you put your mind to it, that was. And gave it time. And if there was one thing young Mr. Goodhall knew plenty about, it was time.
You see, young Mr. Goodhall was a watchmaker, just like his father had been before him and his grandfather before his father.
In fact, for as long as anybody could remember, all the Goodhalls had been watchmakers, and it can be rightly said that that third proper clock to have ever been built in this country or any other had been a Goodhall.
The country in question being England, of course.
Now, it wasn’t that time moved any different in England compared to other countries. Time was a rather universal affair, but when it came to observing and measuring it, one might say – and young Mr. Goodhall had indeed said it on several occasions – that no other country in more recent history had been more obsessed than England.
In England, being a seafarer’s country after all, watching time had slowly but surely taken over from watching the heavens.
Navigation, once a celestial thing, became a matter of men measuring minutes, breaking them down to seconds that were ticking-tocking away, telling the sailors how far they were from home, and how close to any danger, be it currents or depths so deep they would swallow their souls.
And since souls were somewhat important, as I’m sure you agree, there was comfort in such certainty, and so the sailors took good care of the clocks. They wrapped them in red satin cloth, encased them in wooden boxes and put those on little tables.
It wasn’t quite worship, mind you, but to the untrained eye the daily gatherings in the belly of each English ship could have easily been mistaken for a ceremony celebrating a yet unknown church of science.
Men, dressed in uniforms that carried with them the faith in thinkers and tinkerers, in engineers and craftsmen, were reading from written paper, from bound books. Men who calculated, added and subtracted as if not only their location but their entire lives were bound to time itself.
And they were, as all lives are. Bound to time.
Thus it came to pass that the heavens were no longer needed to safely sail the stormy seas, leaving the skies open for other things, themselves still watching but no longer being watched.
And watch they did.
In all those centuries that followed.
Centuries that were filled with big triumphs and little tragedies, or perhaps little triumphs and little tragedies, that depended on your point of view, really, since someone's triumph would always be another one's tragedy.
But whatever they were, triumphs or tragedies, they were worth watching, since they definitely beat what was happening in other parts of the heavens, even with all of its suns and moons and supernovae, for nothing could burn as brightly as the human heart.
And isn't that a sight to see?
Young Mr. Goodhall's heart, I regret to inform you, had never burned brightly in his life.
It wasn't that it was cold or hardened or unfeeling, this heart, although it would have been easy to mistake it as such if you were to meet him. It simply had never been ignited, and so the best it had ever done was to tick-tock with the same precision of the clocks and watches he fashioned.
With such precision came politeness, perhaps even kindness, but never a proper warmth, for that burning feeling inside surely would have stopped his heart, if only for a moment.
That was a thought that young Mr. Goodhall found to be somewhat terrifying. A broken heart, like a broken clock, was an impossible proposition, and it comforted him to know that there was at least one of those that he could fix while the other was something he tried to never had any dealings with.
He dealt with people, all right, and here was one of them, a regular customer by the name of Hanson Appleby, rich by birth, bored by life, and collector of things that didn't belong to him. He was a valued customer to young Mr. Goodhall, although I would never be able to bring myself to call him a good one.
Annoyance followed in his wake, a wave of discontent and frustration that parted the room as he looked for things new and old, already believing – as always – that all in the watchmaker's store was for sale. A big-bellied bully, dressed in arrogance and tailor-made suits, he tried to look down on young Mr. Goodhall as the watchmaker shook Mr. Appleby's hand, careful not to hold it too long for fearing that some of his customer's attitude might be a socially transmitted disease.
Considering that Mr. Appleby was by a good five inches shorter than young Mr. Goodhall, the attempt to look down on the watchmaker was a valiant one, but ultimately rather unsuccessful.
"You know why I am here, Mr. Goodhall," Appleby said, and his tiny eyes had already focused on the object of his desire, standing on a chaotic shelf in the back of the store. "Again."
"Like every day, Mr. Appleby," said Mr. Goodhall.
"Every day is a new day," said Appleby.
"But every day the answer is the same, Mr. Appleby."
"One of these days – "
"You'll never know," said young Mr. Goodhall, trying to be polite.
"That's why I am still coming around," said Appleby. "I have time."
"And money," added young Mr. Goodhall
"Yes," Appleby said. "A lot of money."
Young Mr. Goodhall smiled. It was a boyish smile.
It made him look years younger than he was, placing him in his early and not late twenties. When the smile vanished, the actual age returned, cloaking all youthfulness with worries wrinkling his skin around the eyes and his mouth. The smile had been carefully practiced over the years and was part politeness, part sales tool, and all for the benefit of the customers.
Young Mr. Goodhall walked back behind the store's counter to pull out an assortment of beautiful watches, all of them made by him, each of them little miracles of masterful workmanship, with the tiniest springs and cogs that could fit in a metal casing and still be functional.
"And maybe I just have the right objects for you to spend that money on," young Mr. Goodhall said. A sale could still be made, he hoped.
After all, watches like those he made were little pieces of art, and it was hard to put a price on art. And so young Mr. Goodhall laid them out like that, on a black satin piece of cloth that was as dark as the night's sky and let the watches sparkle in the store's light like stars coming out to shine.
Appleby gave them as much attention as the old seafarers gave to the heavens, which is to say that he gave them no attention at all, instead nodding at the ancient clock that had once been indeed the third clock ever made in all of England and had been in the hands of the Goodhall family ever since.
"I want this," he said.
"And I'm still afraid to say that you cannot have it," young Mr. Goodhall replied.
A silent sigh escaped his lips, for the following conversation would be similar to yesterday's and would surely be one that would come up tomorrow. "It's a family heirloom."
"It's a clock that would look much better if it were in the study of my estate," said Appleby, who indubitably had imagined it to already stand there, among the other trinkets and things that were slowly but surely gathering dust as their owner was forever moving forward, always looking for the next thing to fall into chubby and well-manicured hands that had never seen, never done a day's work, honest or otherwise.
"It's broken," young Mr. Goodhall said.
"Then I will pay you to fix it," Appleby said. "And you will make twice the money."
"It can't be fixed," young Mr. Goodhall said.
"You don't want to fix it," Appleby said.
That, incidentally, was the truth, although I can also tell you that Mr. Appleby and the truth were not and had never been on a first name basis. Neither had Appleby and young Mr. Goodhall, come to think of it, although that may have been at least in part due to the fact that young Mr. Goodhall didn't care too much about being on a first name basis with anybody, considering it a kind of intimacy that made him feel uncomfortable.
"I can't fix it," young Mr. Goodhall replied, repeating a lie that was not white, at least not completely, but if there were good lies and bad lies, this one here you could perhaps call a good one, for the truth was very personal and concerned young Mr. Goodhall's father. He had made his son promise to leave the clock as it was, for reasons young Mr. Goodhall had never understood.
"I will even buy up all of your new watches," said Appleby. "Surely they would make good Christmas presents. Just give it to me, that one clock. It is wasted here."
Here, I can now tell you, was a small townhouse in the heart of London. It was old, old-fashioned and attempting to age as gracefully as it could, considering the fact that its owner had not been all that successful in keeping up with the times.
Watches and clocks, once having been guidance to entire empires, were a curiosity. Unless made near the mountains of Switzerland and laced with utterly useless diamonds, gold or rare metals and primarily used as objects intended to incite jealousy, they had been replaced by electrical currents that lit up touchable screens and gave the time in strict, digital numbers on phones that people even younger than young Mr. Goodhall barely ever used as such, preferring short messages typed on smooth surfaces and cutting down thoughts to 140 characters or less, perpetual status updates sent to the invisible electronic bubble around them.
They had become less than practical, the things young Mr. Goodhall was proud of being able to craft with his hands. They had become a difficult way to pay the bills, of which there were many, stacked in an ever-rising pile at the side of young Mr. Goodhall's working desk in the back of the shop. Truth be told, Mr. Appleby had not been merely a valued customer in those past months, sometimes he had also been the only one, and it would be correct to state that without Appleby's obsession and the wealth that could pay for it, young Mr. Goodhall's store would have already been forced to close for business.
As it was, though, the time for that had not come yet.
The end of the store's existence, always in sight, had been pushed back by one week, sometimes two weeks, with each new purchase by Mr. Appleby. And so, while young Mr. Goodhall was still running things, he was running out of time.
There would be a day, not too far into the future, when the clock Mr. Appleby was so desperate about would also be on sale, because pride could not fill a belly, and a promise could not pay a bill.
However, today was not that day.
And while this tale concerns time, and both the clock and Mr. Appleby were to play a part in the events that followed this morning's misery, let me be clear that it is not Mr. Appleby's story.
If somebody had told him, though, at this very moment, Mr. Appleby would have had very strong feelings about such an assertion, without a doubt all of them negative.
After all, a man like him, by virtue not only of his wealth but also his girth, considered himself to be somewhat of planet of his own, the way smaller men would consider themselves an island.
Only that if you were a planet, you did expect other, smaller objects – like a poor watchmaker, for instance – to orbit you and respect that gravitational pull. Something that young Mr. Goodhall had been careful to avoid, choosing to remain at a respectful distance. And did I not say that annoyance were sure to follow Mr. Appleby's wake? This was this annoyance, coming to the surface and flushing fat cheeks with the first signs of anger.
"It's merely a clock, man!"
"It's a special clock," young Mr. Goodhall said.
"To you?" asked Appleby, who could not understand the very concept of something being special, for he had collected so many special things that all of them had become mundane. Such was the fate of things that were unique and stood out in a crowd, you see, if captured and caught and collected.
"To my father," young Mr. Goodhall said.
"Bah! It's just a clock!"
The clock in question was quite an excellent clock, broken or not, and if it had still worked, it would have chimed perfectly, with each hour, from its place up on the shelf in the back of the shop.
I wish I could tell you that young Mr. Goodhall remembered the sound well from his childhood, and he had come to miss it, just as he had come to miss his father and mother, and if there hadn't been that promise, he would have certainly already fixed it, merely to hear those sounds once more and remember.
But it had been broken before he had been born, and so only remembered the stories his father had told him about it, and telling them had made his father smile and cry, which is a rarity, most of the times. And it was for that reason that young Mr. Goodhall wanted to live up to the promise he had given his father.
"Then why do you want it?" asked young Mr. Goodhall, who had been a shop owner long enough to see a shift in strategy by a customer. "And come back every day?"
"Because!" said Appleby, exploding in desperate anger.
The collector who was not allowed to collect, not this thing, not this time, sighed. "Tell you what, if I do buy these –"
Appleby pointed at the watches displayed in front of him.
"– will you promise me to think about my offer?"
"We can discuss it next week," young Mr. Goodhall said.
"I'll be here," Appleby said.
"I know you will," sighed young Mr. Goodhall.
The transaction that followed was short and without an attempt to haggle on Mr. Appleby's part, who did indeed have all the time in the world and made no secret about the fact that he was going to spend a considerable amount of it on wearing down young Mr. Goodhall, feeling that with each passing week he would come one step closer to his goals.
"Have a nice day," said Appleby as he left the shop.
Young Mr. Goodhall, who was not entirely sure what a nice day would look like, nonetheless politely wished the collector the same before counting his blessings, all 732 pounds and 18 shillings that would have to be split up in smaller chunks be given away to others again, and fairly soon.
Twenty pounds, though, a crumbled up new note, he did put into his wallet and made a mental note on how to best spend it. A nice day this wasn't, but it would be a good one, young Mr. Goodhall thought.
Twenty pounds would pay for a good meal, and perhaps some polite conversation over tea and biscuits with one of the waitresses at the coffeehouse a few blocks down the road and that he was frequenting often enough to have its owner and staff know exactly what young Mr. Goodhall would order the moment he entered.
The shop around him, empty now of all but himself and his work, was only filled by the ticking of the clocks and watches that had stayed behind, a rhythmic reminder of how little he had been able to make today, while his life was ticking away. And still, none of them matched the beating of young Mr. Goodhall's heart.
He glanced up at the clock that was Mr. Appleby's object of desire, a space of silence around it that was almost audible.
"Can't fix you," young Mr. Goodhall told the clock, "can't sell you. What is that you are good for, then?"
Now, it would have been a remarkable miracle if the clock had answered him, wouldn't you agree? But it didn't. It merely continued to stand there, having been handed down through the centuries, from father to son, from mother to daughter, until it had broken while time had moved on, its display still showing the exact moment it had ceased to be of any use to anybody.
It showed it one minute to twelve, its hands almost touching each other,
close enough to mistake them to be one, so close were they, behind a cracked glass that had been allowed to gather dust, a milky film of at least ten years gathering on it.
Strangely enough, one to twelve was the exact moment that young Mr. Goodhall had chosen to look at the clock, and as far as miracles go, this one ranked about on the very bottom of any list, somewhere between a lucky penny working out and winning maybe three pounds in the National Lottery, so you may forgive him for not noticing what – if it only had been big and loud, colorful and immediately beneficial enough – would immediately have been recognized as a miracle.
The other clocks in young Mr. Goodhall's shop started to chime, ring and buzz, telling their creator and owner to give all of his attention to them, and them only.
"Good timing," said young Mr. Goodhall, whose belly had begun to growl to remind him that it had not been filled with anything that day, save some morning coffee and four spoons of sugar turning said coffee into a thick, syrupy mess that had been enough to keep him going all morning.
And it was. Only young Mr. Goodhall would have no idea as to why it was until much later, for that is how they work, you see? These small miracles that nobody noticed while they were looking for the big ones.
But it was.
It was a good timing, indeed.
It was a miracle, for instance, that a young waitress named Misty McColl had even made it out of bed this morning, for this particular day was her day off, leading to an unusual but rather amusing night out with her friends, which in turn had led her to have a hangover roughly the size, if not entirely the shape of Texas.
Why hangovers very often chose the size and shapes of American states, regardless of where they appeared around the world to punish you for an evening out, was one of those mysteries best left unexplained. Last I heard, a scientific team at one of the smaller universities in Wales had attempted, quite unsuccessfully, to get to the bottom of it, by which I mean that they had gotten to the bottom of every available glass filled with every available kind of alcohol known to man (and some I'm pretty sure were or at least should have been unknown) in a rather good-spirited attempt to catalog all the sizes and shapes of hangovers.
There had been hangovers the size of Alabama, Connecticut, Nevada and South Dakota, described with thick tongues still tasting the previous evening, remembered by pained minds still lost in the fog. There had been hangovers the size of California, and some of them looked a lot like the shape of Montana, and in one case the hangover had decided to come down on one of the scientists in the size of Rhode Island, which meant that it was yelping inside his brain like a little dog, angry that it couldn't have been any bigger.
Anyway, the hangover in question here was roughly the size of Texas, although it had not been scientifically measured. It came with dry heaves and a dry tongue that made it hard for Misty McColl to swallow when she woke up in a little flat she shared with three others, all of them dreaming, not merely now – in the dawn's early hours – but generally dreaming, and dreaming of bigger things.
There was Leonard, the dreaming poet and writer down the hall, who snored loudly and cursed through a closed door every now and then, be it from exhaustion, bitterness or the acceptance that nobody had waited for his genius. He rarely ventured out and was only a face in the mornings, a grumpy one at that, on his way to some kind of job or another that would barely cover his part of the rent, and he would most certainly lose in a month or two, the way he had so far managed to lose any and all jobs in the real world.
There was the Akiko, the ballet dancer who never ate, at least not in public, a thin and thin-skinned girl who looked much younger than her years. She resembled the tiniest, most fragile of birds, perched on the back of the kitchen chair, with a hot cup of tea in her hands, never better and always welcoming her flatmates with a happy smile that hid both hunger and fear, her tiny heart beating far too fast as it was cranked up on caffeine and cigarettes that had been her preferred choice to substitute proper food.
There was Christopher, the economics student, who had calculated that sharing this part of his life with the others in this flat would be, well, most economical. He was certain, however, that as soon as he would get a job in The City – which was quite a different beast from the city of London and only allowed the most economical people to populate it – he would never share his life with anybody else again. He was the most charming of Misty McColl's mates, in the way that snake oil salesmen were charming, and although it can be said with quite some confidence that this young man had never and would never sell snake oil itself.
And if I only give you their first names here, it is because they were all on a first name basis here, in this.
Together with Misty McColl.
A resume would have told you the facts. That she was 22 years of age and a photography and philosophy student. That she had supported herself the past three years as a waitress, of which there were many in London, so that holding to that job, any job, was of the utmost importance to her. It would have told you that Misty enjoyed people, had the appropriate skills and would be flexible enough.
All of which led to a certain phone call from the coffee shop she had been working for the better part of the past year, because it was closer to home and paid a little bit more than the other jobs she had worked. Not a whole lot more, of course, times were tight for everybody, but still enough to have one or two more nights she could go out to enjoy life.
"Mmmh?" she growled sleepily into the phone.
Her eyes, had they not been still closed, would have seen that she was holding the phone upside down, her cheeks hugging the flat, hardened surface of its display like it was the tiniest, most uncomfortable pillow.
And even when she did notice her mistake, not hearing any reply and switching the phone around, she did her very best not to open those eyes, because, remember? It was indeed the size of Texas, and just like the US state Misty McColl's hangover didn't like to be messed with.
"Mmmh?" she repeated, even more quietly than before, and listened to the voice at the other end of the line, who told in her things that cut through the fog inside her mind.
"Mmmh," she said one more time, before formulating her first proper sentence in the early morning hours. "No, don't worry, Bruce. I'll be coming in as soon as I am awake."
The voice at the other end of the line said something.
"No," said Misty McColl, sighing and rubbing her face, going through her hair with tired fingers, the eyes still closed, the mouth opened to a silent yawn. "I'm definitely not awake. You're talking to my brain's answering machine, Bruce. You can leave a message after the beep."
Another reply came, like the others before it spoken into a phone just like this one, merely a few blocks away and almost in shouting distance, but instead being broken down into bits and bytes, bouncing around the planet quite a lot before returning back down.
The most human of all – talking – turned into a complicated and costly business venture, this was. A miracle as well, you may say, and not necessarily a small one, since it involved building satellites and call centers and gave jobs to hundreds of thousands of people with nothing better to do than call at the most inappropriate times to tell you about their new offers, their new plans, their new incentives.
Bruce Newman, while not being one of those, nonetheless now had the ability to intrude on his employees' private lives, and – like every other boss, really – saw that not as a problem, at least not as his problem. His voice, always a little whiny, was even more so on the phone, so much so that if voices had a shape, his would be that of an annoyed midget with a balding head.
"Yes," Misty told him as she forced her eyes to open, staring at her bedroom's ceiling, with its three pronounced cracks. Every morning Misty looked at them with a sharp eye, always wondering if today was the day the ceiling would collapse on her. It never had done that yet, though, and the handymen brought in by the flat's landlord had assured her the cracks were merely a minor blemish and likened them to wrinkles in the face of an older person. Somehow, this wasn't a very reassuring thought to Misty, because now she had the feeling every time she woke up that the house itself was frowning at the very thought of somebody like her living inside it.
She half expected it to roar at her and demand for her to get off the lawn. Or out of the flat. Or to do something else that old folks required younger ones to do when they were visibly displeased.
"I will come, Bruce," Misty said. "But if you keep on talking to me, I will come to murder you, okay?"
Misty switched off the phone. It beeped, like a disappointed pet that wanted more attention.
Then, in a quite surprising turn of events, it released a snoring sound, breath interrupted and loudly released into the early morning air. It had never done that before, and it was that sound that snapped Misty fully awake.
"Oh God," she whispered. "You have got to be kidding me."
Now, while it cannot be disputed that God had a quirky sense of humor, I can tell you the only one kidding in this particular situation was Misty McColl, and she was kidding herself, for what had happened the night before, only lost in memory and slowly returning to her like a gleeful child shouting Nyah! Nyah! Nyah! had not been God's fault.
Well, at least not completely.
I mean, in a sense everything that had happened since the dawn of creation had been God's fault in one way or another, but I've been told by a rather reliable source that the dawn had been a nice one, had come with a warm light and only a small chance of light rain showers in the early afternoon, which in God's way of looking at time and things was still somewhat in the future of mankind. I must also stress the fact that at the time of Misty McColl's unfortunate actions (which did start at roughly one in the morning, with a repeat performance at three, thank you very much) which had her question the balance of creation, God had been nowhere near her.
Instead, he had appeared in a burnt toast jumping out of a cheap toaster, bought at a discount store near Philadelphia, giving an old spinster by the name of Edwina Hoffmeister the religious equivalent of what Misty McColl was experiencing physically at roughly the same moment.
Didn't I say that God had a quirky sense of humor?
So, if God not been to blame, perhaps it had been the Devil, for it is said he can often be found at the bottom of a bottle, and while there had been many bottles involved in the previous evening's entertainment, both of the beer and wine variety, to blame the Devil would also have been unfair.
"You've got to be kidding me," said Misty McColl once more, as people often do when they want to convince themselves that what they saw couldn't possibly be true.
What couldn't be true was occupying the good side of Misty McColl's bed, hogging a good chunk of the bedding and one of her many pillows.
It wasn't that it was an entirely unpleasing sight, at least not a first. The shape under the duvet covers, still naked and remarkably white in the early morning light, had been the result of a great deal of care and three days of working out every week. The face was boyish enough to still be carded when asking for anything stronger than an apple juice, and the hair was a shock of pitch black locks, unkempt, and had been tugged and pulled on during the night.
"You have got to be kidding me," said Misty McColl a third time, because third times are a charm, and perhaps – if life was indeed a series of small miracles – this would be the one where the man in her bed would magically disappear, if not in a cloud of smoke then at least to his own room down the hall, where he belonged.
"Christopher?" she asked into the room's silence, a gentle snore answering her. "I mean, are you serious?"
Christopher, who was always serious and would soon accept the offer to an internship at a small investment bank, where he would made some serious money, seriously, had been the last man that Misty McColl had ever wanted to spend a night with. Not even when the world was about to end, and her flat mate would have been in fact the very last man. All of which were good enough reasons to assume on her part that the world had already ended last night. That this had to be judgment day, and boy, would she be called on for that one, if anybody else found out.
"Get out of here," Misty said, most to herself, but in the hope that the sleeping chunk of male meat, a rather lifeless thing with the exception of an occasional snore as proof of its continued existence, would be hearing her as well.
"No, there's no way that I could have never been that drunk," Misty whispered, holding her head between her hands, before questioning not only her sanity but herself. "Could I?"
To appreciate the level of drunkenness that would have to be achieved Misty McColl to consider intimacy with Christopher, here are some of other things Misty would have (and in some instances had) done before even considering such a relation, however brief.
At the bottom of such list, for rather probable, was drunken singing, preferably in a pub on the way home, together with her mates. There had been a great many number of those late nights, and every now and then they had ended with an improvised staging of various West End musical numbers belched and belted out, with the passion of a professional performance.
One summer's night it had grown to singing and dancing, and while there were surely better people to interpret ABBA, that particular performance of Mamma Mia's grand finale would not be forgotten, at least by the residents of Camden, who had perhaps not been the most welcome of audiences, but were still forced to listen. Off key and certainly off center, the lyrics came out proud and true, with that nostalgia of loves lost and hopes found.
Here I go again, indeed.
Slightly more improbable, but still a possible outcome of any drunken stupor was the experimentation with your sexuality, now so more than before. Maybe it was merely something never written about in earlier days, and if you did, it most certainly was never something you'd write home about, but the phrase I kissed a girl, and I liked it had become no longer a thing exclusively exclaimed by excited boys in their early (or late) teens. Misty McColl's experimental phase in that area had involved a little bit more than kissing, there had also been groping and the occasional licking, all of which would have very likely excited boys even more so if they had been witness to such sexual exploration.
Unfortunately for all boys (and let me tell you, it was unfortunate indeed), these adventures in free spiriting were a thing of the past, and if you did not count last night, there had been a considerable dry spell for dear Misty McColl when it came to romps, be they in or out of the bedroom.
Again, that must be counted as a small. She was, after all, a woman of considerate beauty, with features passed on through generations and having originated in the highlands of Scotland. Her frame, heavier than what would pass as perfection in the modern world, was made to wear a ball gown. Her face, a freckled mess of extraordinary complexity, featured clear, green eyes that lit up when she laughed, something she did quite often, her mouth being kissable even when its lips weren't stretched for a smile. On top of it all, quite literally, was a rusty waterfall of hair that gushed past her face and gathered in puddles of red hair on her white shoulders.
So, if there had been nobody in Misty McColl's life, it wasn't for lack of men or women offering themselves up to her.
Which made last night's mistake, and it was a mistake, make no mistake about that, even more of a mistake, and one that Misty knew she would have to answer for, the moment the other two of her mates were to find out about what she had done.
"Oh God," moaned Misty as more memories came back to her, the way memories did, in little pieces that slowly made up a puzzle, and this particular piece was remembering that she had moaned those exact words, albeit it in a different context, more than once during last night's encounter. "Oh my bloody God."
"Wake up," she said to the prick that was next to her, all six feet of him, of which only about six inches deserved to be called that, at least anatomically speaking. The other five feet and spare change were merely attached to the actual thing, also deserving to be called that name, but for quite different reasons.
"Christopher?" she asked, shaking last night's mistake by his shoulder. There was a groan, not much of a raise, because opposed to popular belief, not all pricks began the morning by being responsive to the slightest of touches. "Get up! Hey, Christopher, get the hell up!"
"No sugar, honey," came the reply, which sounded like an order that Misty McColl would fill later in the day, but in fact had been one of those things that people say when they are still dreaming and don't wish to be disturbed. It may not come as a surprise to you that in his dreams Christopher was ordering somebody around to do his bidding, and the smile on his sleeping face was that of deep content. Dreams of people in economics were like that, for they lacked the imagination to dream of anything that might be less, well, economical.
"No sugar," Christopher repeated to his imaginary personal assistant, who did not look at all like Misty McColl but resembled more or less a boy's constructor's kit version of every current supermodel, with various parts assembled in not quite the right way, the way these things happen in dreams. "Just you, honey."
"Oh, for fuck's sake," said Misty McColl.
She pushed him harder, pushed him out of her bed, duvets and pillows following him as he fell down on the floor, his dream coming to a sudden end, but without the severance package that he expected.
"What the hell?" asked a very awake Christopher.
"Go," said Misty McColl, who dragged her own body out of the bed, her naked feet passing him as he looked up to her, covering up all the parts that she had already seen and had not been impressed with all that much.
"Go away," Misty clarified. "Go home. Just go. You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here."
"I am home!" protested Christopher.
And – technically speaking – he was correct about that. That is the problem with technicalities, see? They never tell you the whole tale. And while the flat was technically his place of residence, just as it was Misty McColl's, that residence no longer applied to her room inside her flat, nor did it apply to the even more personal spaces, like her knickers.
"To your room," said Misty McColl. "Go to your room."
"Who are you?" Christopher asked. "My mother?"
"Oh, you wish!"
"What did I do?" Christopher asked, knowing full well what he had done and not regretting any of it in the slightest. See, there were men who knew what weaknesses to exploit in a woman, and the charm, slick but mostly oily, that would ensure Christopher's rather meteoritic rise in the world of high finance, had been used well on a lonely and increasingly frustrated Misty McColl. Words that were like a massage, laughter and the right amount of understanding, faked but nonetheless effective, had led from a chat to a walk to a kiss to a more adult action.
"Nothing!" Misty said. "You did nothing. I did nothing!"
"Not the way I remember it," Christopher said, who had a full recollection of the nothing they done, having had considerably less to drink that Misty McColl.
"Yeah," Misty said. "You remember it wrong."
She got a new set clothes out of a drawer, hoping that they wouldn't have his smell of sweat or the taste of boozy kisses that at this moment she feared would follow her around forever.
"We did nothing!" Misty said.
"I didn't get drunk," said Christopher, not even bothering to hide anything, neither his body nor the sly grin that he would employ so many times more in his future employments as an investment banker, indicating he was happy to have screwed somebody.
Misty stared at him, willing him in that single look to simply die, and to do so slowly and with as much pains as possible. That didn't happen, because you see, we are talking about small miracles here, and that would have been a big one.
"Just saying," said Christopher.
"Don't say it," Misty snapped, looking for socks and boots, the latter of which had been thrown away carelessly in last night's desperate, lustful fumbles and tumbles and now were far too close to the bed, too close to who and what was in that bed, so Misty chose some simple sneakers. And hoped she would be able to sneak out on them.
"Don't say anything. Just shut up. Not a word. Not to me, not to anybody, okay? Nobody! And when I am back from work later this afternoon, you will be gone. Out of here. Gone. Away. Which means somewhere else. Not here. Nowhere near here, and by here I mean the bed and my room and any place, really, where I might be at that time."
Already fully dressed, Misty nodded to herself, quite confident that this was all there was to say about the situation, making her way out of the door for a daring escape from her own four walls.
"Can't we talk about this?" Christopher asked. "Misty?"
"There's nothing to talk about," Misty said. "Nothing. Zero. And you know why? Because this didn't happen!"
"Misty – "
"It! Didn't! Happen!" repeated a very angered Misty McColl.
But I am here to tell you that it did happen, and while Misty McColl – seen here rushing out of the flat to get some fresh air, some moment to think and perhaps a good cry on her way to work on her day off – didn't know it yet, and would have not believed you if you had told her, it was a good thing that it happened, too.
Because of it, of all the little choices, all the small miracles, of all the little impossibilities, there would be a big miracle later that day. For timing was everything, and the little things, they mattered, because put together, they would often amount to something bigger.
Granted, on most days that something bigger might just as well be a big pile of crap, but not on this day.
No, definitely not on this day.
BEING MOSTLY ABOUT YOUNG
MR. GOODHALL's LUNCH AND
MISTY MCCOLL'S DAY OFF, BUT
ALSO ABOUT CONVERSATIONS,
CAUSALITIES AND COFFEE
It was at the coffee shop, exactly seventeen minutes after he had finished his lunch, that young Mr. Goodhall saw an angel.
It wasn't Misty McColl.
Misty McColl had been called an angel more than once, mostly by her father when she had been very little. Which, of course, according a tradition observed by fathers everywhere for many generations around the world, made her his little angel.
Given that, there were a lot more angels walking around than one might have thought, but still not enough to dance on the head of a single pin, since most of them, being little angels, were still crawling around, burping and doing all what is considered to be cute at that particular age and gets you worried looks when you are older and still doing it.
So there were angels out there, millions of them at any given time, and in the minds of their fathers, they would always be exactly that, which may very well be the reason that fathers are not dealing too well with them growing up.
Misty McColl was one of those who had grown up. She was also a rather grumpy one, who had come in earlier with not only her hangover, but also with a mood that could turn milk sour just by standing next to it.
"You're late," said Bruce Newman, who had been expecting her for over an hour, having completely and conveniently forgotten – as bosses do – that employees are not slaves, not to mention the fact that it did take some time to get dressed and hop on over at a moment's notice.
"I'm early," said Misty.
"Nine," said Bruce, nodding at the clock behind the coffee shop's counter, so far having been only manned by himself and facing a long line of customers, demanding with equally sour faces something in a cup that would make the beginning of their work days bearable.
"On my day off," said Misty. "Which makes me twenty-three hours early. One for the Guinness, this is."
"You want to talk about records, girl," Bruce replied, fighting to fill three different orders, all of which included foamed milk, barely any calories and enough caffeine to give several small animals heart attacks. "You look at me, handling all of this alone, just me and my two hands."
"Can I go again, then?"
"Don't you dare, girl."
"What's with Sarah?" asked Misty.
"Not getting to be the employee of the month, she is."
"You only have two employees, Bruce."
"Makes it easier to choose, that."
Misty McColl made her way behind the counter and put the apron around her waist, a simple black piece of cloth that held a small pocket for her notepad and pen, should she need to have both hands free. It also named the shop, in printed letters of perfectly pearly white that would have befitted a better name, but the letters merely proclaimed quite prosaically the wearer of the apron was employed by the Camden Coffee Club.
"Makes it easier to give me a raise?" she asked.
"And here I thought you liked coming here," said her boss, who lived with the delusion that employees liked their jobs so much, they would also do them for free. Such delusion, by the way, is much more common than a cold, and it seems that most bosses around the world had caught it at one point or another.
"I like sleeping, Bruce. I like going out. I like having a full Scottish breakfast on a Sunday morning, which I know is like directly pumping my arteries full of frying fat and generally looked down upon by an entire generation of stick figures. I like to smoke an occasional cigarette if I am stressed out, and I know that can't be good for me, either, but what the hell. I like reading books," said Misty. "And I like kissing in the rain, probably because where I grew up, there's hardly a chance to do it any other way."
"There a point to this, honey?" asked Bruce.
"There's a point, all right," said Misty. "And I was getting to it."
"You sure were taking your time," said Bruce.
"Because it's an important point."
"The point is," said Misty, "that there are great many things that I like, some I even love, but none include coming to work on my day off."
Misty thought about it for a moment. If there was one place she decidedly wanted to be even less than at work, then it was home, with the problems that being there would bring. Hopefully, the problem still warming her bed would be gone when she came back, but knowing Christopher, that was not necessarily a certainty.
"Except for today, that is," she said, rolling her eyes.
"That's my girl," said Bruce. "Now be a dear and get these orders out to the folks sitting over there. Place's going to get crowded pretty soon, what with all of them tourists coming in and all."
The Camden Coffee Club was already plenty crowded, even without the tourists, but that was owned to the fact that the coffee shop was little more than a hole in the wall. Just off to the right of Camden market, the purchase of a former basement flat had probably been the first and only good idea Bruce Newman had ever had. The steps led down from the street, a large sign at the top telling you that if you want to wake up, join the Camden Coffee Club!
There were no fees involved, of course, but as far as ideas go, this one had been a successful one, especially because it had been established at a time when coffee shops had been the rarest of sights in and around Camden.
Indian fast food had already taken a foothold there, and the pubs were plenty, but with tourists – especially American ones, flooding out of continental flights at Heathrow and bussed around London, taking them past the important sights like Big Ben and Buckingham Palace – had come a craving for coffee, or at least some kind of place where you could sit down, rest your feet, at least for a little while.
One of these American tourists had been Bruce Newman, whose last name wasn't really Newman. He had taken it on as a joke and as a sign that his life, wandering around without a sense of purpose, had come to an end. Here he would be, literally, a new man. There was a joke in that somewhere, but whatever it was, it would have to remain hidden, because neither any of the waitresses who had passed through his shop over the years nor his customers knew what Bruce Newman's real last name had been the at the moment he had arrived in London, stepped off that bus in Camden and decided that this was the place to stay.
He'd still had hair back then, curly and long and with the cut fashionable in an era that was all about love and peace and understanding, not to mention drugs, sex and rock'n'roll. A man of indeterminate origin, with skin that was the color of mocha, eyes of a well-made espresso, Bruce had wandered around Camden Market like so many others, drawing in the smells and tastes of old books and new food, of clothes that were given a new life.
Only one thing had been missing, and Bruce – with an impeccable nose that had smelled many places in Europe – had noticed the lack of it. It was coffee. Good coffee. It had a special smell, good coffee did. And it wasn't here.
Bruce Newman had smelled something else, though. An opportunity, and if there had been anything he had learned through his travels, it was that you shouldn't let an opportunity go to waste.
This thinking had made the Camden Coffee Club the oldest establishment of such nature in all of Camden, or so Bruce would boast to both employees and customers, while he fixed them cappuccinos, espressos, milk and flavored coffees, made from Turkish and Columbian blends, and if that sounded like he was dealing drugs, well, the difference was one of legality and legality alone.
While Bruce had lost his hair, had gained weight, his coffee shop had mostly gained one thing, more customers, and he would tell you with considerable pride that he had been selected seven times in the past nine years as best tourist trap in a variety of American travel and lifestyle magazines.
What he wouldn't tell you, though, was the fact that he had paid for most of those positive reviews, for writers were a starving lot, and some of them – I am sure – would have written a glowing, maybe even bombastic story on a place like this for the equivalent of a decent sandwich and a large cup of coffee.
It was crowded already, that morning, yes, but that would be nothing against the late morning rush that Bruce referred to, when the Americans would launch their tourist offensive on Camden Market and all of its specialties.
Best to get ready, then, thought Misty McColl, for some reason hoping that today would not be such a day, knowing very well that it would be.
It was good fortune that there was no milk near her right now. It might not have merely soured, but very likely jumped that first stage to go straight to becoming cottage cheese, and a very bitter one at that, if it had been flavored by Misty's mood.
The next few hours were long and felt like forever, but could just as easily be summed up by the orders placed at the coffee shop's counter. There were the double lattés for take-out (secretaries and personal assistants), there were the cream cheese bagels (students), the occasional chai tea latté (hipsters), a muffin here and there (American exchange students), before the tourists arrived good and proper.
Well, proper might not be the correct word to describe them. They were an army, all dressed more or less the same, for it was summer, and if you were an American tourist, that meant for the most part shirts and khakis, a loud, nagging voice and the reminding, not so gentle, that it was them who saved your butt from the Nazis, if you couldn't move said butt fast enough to fill their orders, despite the fact that the hordes of credit card carrying invaders had not even been a gleam in the eyes of the sons and daughters of those who had been in Britain at that time.
"Yes, I know, Ma'am," said Misty to one of them, a woman going on fifty, with a botoxed face that had left her face in a constant state of slight disapproval, "and we are still grateful for that."
Not that the Americans were all alone in their arrogance. Coming in just a little bit later, and dressed like the days of Madonna's and MTV's virginity had never passed, were the Germans, who prided themselves of knowing more about coffee than anybody else, because they had cafés at every street or corner in their own country, which were obviously so much better than anything to be found outside the German borders.
They neglected to mention, of course, that those cafés were and never had been German in nature. They had been imported from Italy, where they in turn had been imported from Austria.
And the Austrians?
They had merely picked up, quite literally, from where the Turkish left off. Which would be in front of the gates of Vienna, where their idea of a good time had been to lay siege to the city in an early effort to export their culture to the Europe, quite successfully, I might add.
At least when it came to coffee.
That they had left behind, in little bags, roasted perfectly, when the Turkish were forced to retreat back to their warmer climates. They also left behind an instruction or two on how to prepare the perfect cup of it. Considering sugar was scarce at the time (so was proper food, mind you), one may say that this was one of those times when victory had a bitter taste, but when victory was also hot and warmed your belly, if you were Austrian.
By the way, it was the Polish who had come in and saved their butts at the last moment, in a manner nowadays reserved for major movies and not anywhere else. It is unknown, however, if the Polish kept on reminding the Austrians of this fact for the rest of the 17th century, the way the Americans would keep on reminding the English a few centuries later.
Given the history of Europe, everybody at one time or another had either kicked somebody's butt or had his butt saved by somebody else, which made it all the more of a miracle that these days the only territorial fighting between the English and the Germans was about who owned the occasional sun chair at the pool of some Spanish hotel.
A fight that involved the generous use of towels, spread out on those chairs before sunrise and not talked about at breakfast or over coffee, where mistrustful eyes stared at each other, the way that only tourists or enemy soldiers could stare.
With coffee being the only common ground.
But even if Misty McColl had not been blissfully unaware of these facts, she would have known better than to point them out to a German. They were proud people, the Germans were, and given their more recent history, they didn't have too many things to be proud of, so one should forgive them for holding on to some of their minor delusions about cultured and civilized behavior.
The tourists came and went, and like any flood, they left behind a mess, in this case one of emptied cups, dirty cutlery and crumb-stained plates. It wasn't quite as bad as a tsunami, mind you, and there would never have been a celebrity noticing these things or calling for any kind of disaster relief. But it was work, cleaning up after those who did things in a restaurant or a coffee shop that they would have never done at home, like leaving snot-filled paper on half-eaten food, something that was happening with quite a frightening regularity.
"Oh, for fuck's sake," said Misty McColl.
I could tell you now that she said it differently, that it was more of a for shuck's sake, oh gosh or oh bugger moment, but we all know that is not what hard-working people say, not really, and so I will not put words into Misty McColl's mouth, not here and not later. It was a for fuck's sake moment, and let's leave it at that.
What prompted it was a carefully constructed chaos on one of the seven tables that made up the majority of the Camden Coffee Club's interior. Three of those tables were big enough to seat an entire family, and one of them had been the battleground of exactly that, an entire family, with three little children and a mother grateful that this time at least she wasn't the one to clean up.
So there were little fortresses made from mashed sandwiches, smeared pickles that had been used as soldiers in a small food fight, not following orders but followed by the children's obvious and gleeful laughter, already noticed by Misty McColl with a disapproving frown, but laughed off by the children's parents, telling them only in the most superficial and toothless way to stop it and to think about the other people might be thinking.
Misty had thought that those three children were in dire need of a good spanking, you know, like most kids were in dire need of a bath after a good afternoon's adventures that involved getting dirty.
She had also attempted to transmit that thought to those parents through telepathy, which is to say that she squinted at them, trying to make them do her bidding through sheer willpower.
Like other attempts before (and if you were a waitress, there were many, just ask around), this one proved to be futile. At least, as Misty noticed, the parents had left a decent tip behind, though nowhere near the size of the mess that it tried to pay for. She grabbed the little cash of cash and stuffed it into her apron, wondering about why it was that time had the tendency to stretch itself into infinity only when you wished it to move faster. A question that had been asked by entire generations of school children before her, by the way, and something that would still remain a mystery for the many generations to follow.
"Hello," said a voice behind Misty McColl. "Surprised to see you here."
"Yeah, well," said Misty, in a harsher voice than it should have been and not turning her back (which was already hurting, even after those few hours, in ways that only waitresses and actresses can understand, for different reasons). "Life's just full of surprises, innit?"
"You can say that again," said young Mr. Goodhall, who was surprised. And a little nervous. And somewhat uncomfortable, because he had not expected such obvious display of rudeness.
"Oh, it's you," said Misty McColl. "Oh, fuck. I'm sorry."
She looked at the clock and realized that it was already three minutes past noon. Under normal circumstances (which would be any other day), this would have been the time that she had already expected young Mr. Goodhall with a smile and the question, as redundant as it may have been, if it was the usual for him.
It wouldn't have been anything but the usual for young Mr. Goodhall, but he appreciated the question nonetheless, because it felt nice to think that maybe, just maybe he could change his mind about his order today. Even for creatures of comfort, which humans usually are, the idea of change was a good one, an interesting and ultimately comforting one, which brought this argument full circle. Misty McColl's apology consequently wasn't merely about her mood towards him, but– also although unspoken – about the fact that she had somehow interrupted young Mr. Goodhall's idea of a perfectly structured day.
"Fuck," she repeated, cleaning her hand with a dish rag that she had slung around her shoulder, "I am really, really sorry."
"I'm not," said young Mr. Goodhall.
"Well, that's quite logical" said Misty, "nothing for you to be sorry about, innit?"
"Nothing to be sorry about for you, either," young Mr. Goodhall said. "Although I am not so sure if your boss would agree with me on that. Language, and all that. He is an American, isn't he?"
Misty McColl, who had no idea about Bruce Newman's equally colored and shady past, shrugged off the question with an earthy smile that only women from the highlands can do.
"Sure isn't Scottish," she said, "I can tell you that."
"Misty!" came Bruce's voice from behind the counter, where the morning's rush had died down as well. "You here to work or flirt with the regulars?"
"Flirting with the regulars," shouted Misty at the top of her voice, "is part of my work here, Bruce, because if I had to live on what you're paying me, I'd be fucking starving!"
"You be starving, girl," shouted Bruce back, "you be taking a long time to die."
"You calling me fat?"
Misty McColl snapped her head back with a stare that was a visual death threat. Weight was an issue for every woman, and despite Misty being quite capable of cursing sailors out of the room or drinking them under the table (whichever came first was fine with her), there was a line that you did not cross when talking a woman.
Or this woman, at the very least.
"I be calling you lazy," Bruce shouted, "if I didn't know that lazy be a step up for you."
But he grinned. He backed down. He had seen that stare before, and Bruce had enough experience (about which he never talked) to know when there was murder in the air, whether the threat was clothed in words or looks.
"Because you know lazy," shouted Misty.
"Damn right I do, girl" grinned Bruce. "After all, I know you, don't I?"
Misty stuck out her tongue at her boss.
Bruce gave young Mr. Goodhall a quick nod. While the tourists were the Camden Coffee Club's bread and butter, perhaps even its pickles and cheese bread rolls (which were a favorite of many tourists from France and Germany and prepared on thickly cut, slightly toasted and dripping with black and brown savory goodness, giving the cheese the right amount of tangy taste), the regulars like young Mr. Goodhall were the added flavor to a place like Bruce Newman's coffee shop.
There were others quite unlike the young watchmaker, for Camden and its market provided a variety of unparalleled characters, pierced and proud, artistic or only artsy, lonely and loud, selling their own lifestyles as they did their wares, displayed on tables, standing against brick walls, standing in shops, put on racks and changing their ownership accompanied by a nod and a smile.
It was them that were part of each sale made here at the Camden Coffee Club, they came with each cup, they were part of each sip, and if you were to ask the tourists later, they would say that they had never had a cup better than this, and most of them would never have another one quite like it in the future.
For this is the reality of it all, that food does taste better when it is eaten far away from home, for drinks are more potent when had in the company of your friends or family and as far removed from the next morning, the next work day, the next work week as it was humanly possible. In fact, if somebody were on top of the Mt. Everest, even the most mundane mix of bagged peanuts would taste like the finest meal, for it would have been eaten at a place so unusual.
"The usual for you, is it?" asked Misty the young watchmaker. For this is the other truth. Those who served as the extra bit of dressing for the tourists, they did live there, every day, they worked there, and even the most special of places, even the most special of treats would lose their luster after a while, something that every child who had eaten too much candy on Halloween could attest to. And so, with the tourists streaming in and out, only and forever picking up pieces and bits (the good ones, mind you), they were never able to see an entire story unfold, at least if it wasn't their own.
"Why not go for a surprise today?" said young Mr. Goodhall, who thought that the twenty pounds he had in his pocket would pay for more than the usual, which was a double sandwich with crispy bacon and French brie, with a small bag of crisps, a double chai tea latté on the side, something he would sip very carefully every now and then between bites.
"Oh, adventurous, are we now?"
"Bored, more like."
"Careful, you," said Misty McColl, who – despite having served young Mr. Goodhall for the better part (and he was the better part, he was, always leaving gracious tips and good-humored conversation behind) of the past few months – had no idea what his proper name was. "You don't know what trouble you might be getting into, being all about adventure and all. I mean, look at me."
This may be a good time to tell you that young Mr. Goodhall not only was looking at her, and by that I mean right at this very moment, but had also stolen looks and glances at Misty McColl for a while.
It wasn't a proper theft, that was.
It was more or less an appreciation of her, they way you would appreciate somebody who was in the same room for their wit and their presence. And it was indeed one of the reasons why young Mr. Goodhall had become a regular of the Camden Coffee Club.
They didn't talk that much, Misty McColl and him, but those moments here and there were worth the tips he gave, or so he reasoned. They talked about photography (which he understood and liked) and sometimes philosophy (where he would often get lost in some of Misty McColl's more intricate mazes made up from her thoughts), but they also chatted about the latest tabloid headlines, the weather and other superficialities of life that would get you through the day.
"You look fine," said young Mr. Goodhall.
"And you look like a liar," said Misty.
Misty took the plates off the table and cleaned it up while young Mr. Goodhall sat down with a smile, ready to start one of these conversations.
"What was the adventure?" he asked.
"What?" asked Misty.
"The adventure you regret," said young Mr. Goodhall.
"It was nothing," said Misty. "Well, nothing important. No, actually, it was really nothing. It was... well, let's just say it was a surprise. Not the good kind. Not the kind you talk about. Well, nothing really."
"Nothing is nothing," said young Mr. Goodhall. "Everything else, so I heard, is always something."
"My, aren't we clever today?"
Young Mr. Goodhall, who never really felt clever at all, gave Misty another smile, and for the first time on that day, she felt like she had arrived in the here and now. It was not merely the routine of her job that had done it. It had been him, being one of those anchors that you could rely on, that kind of guy that you found too boring, too predictable to do anything crazy with.The kind that you would introduce to your friends as reliable. The kind you would never wake up in the morning after a dreadful night of getting pissed. And she was grateful for that.
"It was a man," said Misty.
"Oh," said young Mr. Goodhall.
"Well, actually, it was me," said Misty.
"And that was the surprise?"
"That it was you."
"That it was me with him. Know what I mean?"
"No," said young Mr. Goodhall. "Not really."
"Not even when you were completely and absolutely pissed?" asked Misty. "You must be joking! Must be!"
"I don't get pissed."
"Never been drunk, you."
"I don't drink."
Misty sighed, and said, "You do know that I hate you right now, don't you?"
"I can't see why."
"Because you don't drink."
"I never saw a reason to."
"Not even with friends?"
"I don't drink," said young Mr. Goodhall, who didn't have friends, or at least not many, and most of them were either relatives or had been acquaintances from the past, be it school or work, and were not the kind that he would take out on the town, not really. But he didn't say that. He knew how that would make him look. Instead, he smiled and gave an apologetic shrug.
"My mother would love you," said Misty.
"I have heard that before," said young Mr. Goodhall, who knew all too well that men loved by mothers were universally the ones not loved by their daughters.
This may be because mothers had a very different view on what a man should do and be, and more often than not are searching for the memory of the man they married themselves and who now was that blob on the couch, leaving her youthful dreams on the floor next to it, in the shape of crumbled crisps and emptied beer bottles.
"No, seriously," said Misty McColl. "She would absolutely adore you. You are so..."
She struggled to come up with the right word, the way you struggle to describe a stranger, and make no mistake, despite their previous conversations and despite all I have described here, in the end, young Mr. Goodhall was just that, a stranger.
"... punctual," said Misty.
"Maybe I'm still looking for my adventure," said young Mr. Goodhall, jokingly.
"Eh, don't," said Misty. "Adventures are overrated."
She scribbled something on her notepad, which – if you ever see someone do that – is a good sign that the interesting part of the talk, any talk, is over and done with. And that you get down to business.
"So... what is it that you want?" Misty asked young Mr. Goodhall. "I mean, really?"
Now, there were many things that young Mr. Goodhall had wanted at some time or another, for wanting things is what made one human.
It didn't make one special, however, a fact that somehow seemed to be lost on those whose wants exceed the recommended dosage. I am quite certain you have met one or two of them, yourself. Not quite villains, they nevertheless are never more than a single want or need away from that deserved label, though they would never see it like that, themselves.
When he had been five, young Mr. Goodhall had wanted a coloring book. It was a cheap one, its pages thin, its paper already yellow as the acid in it was slowly turning the original white into the color of smoke-stained fingers, but young Mr. Goodhall didn't mind.
It had his favorite cartoon characters in it, taken from the television screen and put into the book, in their rawest form, in black and white and waiting for a child's creativity to color them in ways never intended or dreamed of by their original creators.
"Childish rubbish," had young Mr. Goodhall's father said, who had not laughed since the day his son had been born, for a good reason, or so he thought. A good reason.
The cruelest things are said or done for a good reason, mind you, and this reason was admittedly a better one than most, because young Mr. Goodhall didn't look at all like his old man.
In fact, he looked very much like his mother. And it must be said that this wasn't his fault, nor had it been his fault that his mother had died giving birth to him. But it had broken young Mr. Goodhall's father's heart, and never allowed it to heal properly, the way hearts should heal, over time.
"Wouldn't want to waste your time with that, son" young Mr. Goodhall's father had said, and for the first time in a long time, measured in sleepless nights and long days, he had smiled. And tousled his young boy's hair.Instead of getting the coloring book, young Mr. Goodhall's first real present given to him by his father was a broken watch.
It was an old watch, and quite precious and very broken.
It was also the first time that young Mr. Goodhall had been allowed to stay with his father at the store, and while there was not much talk between them, there was love, unspoken and not admitted, but nonetheless there, in brief touches and stolen glances of pride.
"It's broken, Dad," young Mr. Goodhall said to his father, presenting the watch in his open palm like a dead bird, hoping and wishing his father would bring it back to life.
"I know," said his father.
"Can you fix it?" said the boy.
"No," said his father.
Young Mr. Goodhall's face fell and looked considerably older than the five years he was old at the time. But then his father took out his tools and put them on the table between them, rolled them out on a black satin cloth, giving his son a good look at them, before stating, quite firmly and still a soft voice –
"At least not alone."
"The usual, is it, then?"
Young Mr. Goodhall blinked. It was not often that he thought of his father. Or of himself at a younger age, because the past was just that, things that had passed, and there was no use living in it. And still, what an unusual time to think of it.
Misty McColl had cocked her head to the side. It was her voice that had brought him back to the present.
It was seven minutes past noon. He was running late. For some reason that bothered young Mr. Goodhall.
"You still with me?" she asked.
"Yes," said young Mr. Goodhall, before thinking for a moment. "Yes. The usual it is."
"Good choice," said Misty McColl. She laughed. "Double sandwich, bacon, French brie. Bit cheesy, if you ask me."
"I like cheesy," said young Mr. Goodhall.
Misty McColl, who would never be caught admitting that she liked anything cheesy, be it on a bread, a spread or in any other instances of the more romantic kind, nodded. Yes. The kind that you would bring home to your mother. Pity, really. Although, considering the night she'd had, she wasn't entirely sure whether she pitied young Mr. Goodhall, herself or the choices that had made each of them what they were.
"Why am I not surprised?" she laughed.
"Because I'm reliable," said young Mr. Goodhall.
"I said you were punctual."
"Yeah," admitted Misty. "Pretty much."
"And not adventurous."
"I can sneak in some red pepper into your sandwich," offered Misty McColl. "You ask me, that's all the adventure one should have with lunch."
"Sounds good," said young Mr. Goodhall.
It didn't merely sound, but tasted good as well. Leave it to the Camden Coffee Club's owner Bruce Newman to combine the different flavors in such a way that the simplest bite would fill your mouth with – in no particular order – the crispy smoke of bacon, marinated in the juices of a pan-fried apple, followed by the soft, somewhat nutty taste of cheese, warmed up to the perfect temperature and slightly sticking to the freshly made toast.
Such a meal, as simple as it was, would indeed have the right to be called the tiniest bit of heaven, thought young Mr. Goodhall, who had never believed in heaven and had never been the kind to attend church, for he also thought that it merited no attention.
The heavens, however, did pay attention to him.
It was a difficult thing to do, I must state here and now, to pay attention to a single life, to that one voice. All the world was an orchestra, attempting to play the most complex symphony ever created in the universe, made up of dreams and hopes, of voices and sounds, not a single one of them ever quite aligned and yet, all of them together, a melody that rose up from the ground and was listened to.
All of it together, it was not the best of symphonies, I might add. There were better ones, and the best of them had been heard or dreamed of by those who in turn had the talent to listen closely, be they a young Austrian boy driven mad by his gift as he put them down on paper and played them to kings and queens, or an old man, almost deaf and yet praising all of humanity, in words and music, so strong that centuries later an entire continent would choose it as its hymn, uniting it past borders and boundaries.
One life, unless it touched and was in turn touched by many others, was a singular voice and more often than not drowned in this concert of human existence, silenced by the louder voices, by the drums of war and the screams of pain that seemed to provide the rhythm for the march of history.
And while young Mr. Goodhall was eating his lunch, he read about those who had voices much louder than his own. They were so loud, in fact, that they had been recorded, printed and put on paper. They kept on talking about war. And fashion. And celebrities. And all the other things that were genuinely important, or so somebody somewhere, usually somebody with money, had decided. There was a member of parliament who had been caught out on an internet dating service, half-naked and looking for a good time. Young Mr. Goodhall skimmed that news as he took another bite of his sandwich. He thought, wasn't everybody? Looking for a good time, I mean, not necessarily posing half-naked on an internet site, although one of young Mr. Goodhall's few friends, a PR manager named Michael Robbins who had been a sandbox buddy, despite now playing in an entirely different sandbox, had suggested exactly that to him a few weeks back, while they were taking a stroll down at the Thames.
It was the kind of stroll you did every now and then with old friends, catching up on old times and nostalgia, while the river next to you only knew how to move forward, never caring about what it left in its wake. The kind of stroll where you talked about everything and nothing at all. And where all conversations inevitably would turn to one subject matter. If you are a man, you know the one.
"Get the freakiest birds, that way, you do" Michael had said. "The kind you don't bring home to Mum, you know what I mean."
Young Mr. Goodhall hadn't known what that meant, but he did wonder, not for the first time in his life, why everybody was so obsessive about parental consent, having lost both his father and mother and being on his own for years now, it was a thought that seemed to only exist in theory, never to be tested by reality.
"Telling you, there was this one bird, who wanted me to do it with a guy," Michael continued. "Not one for that, I must say, but damn if I didn't consider it when I was looking at her photo."
"You considered it?" asked young Mr. Goodhall.
"You seen her, you would have considered it, too," said Michael, who loved talking about his female conquests and had been engaged, in the literal sense of the word, to a quite delightful posh girl named Kate at the time, something he referred to as a good investment, while at the same time engaging every skirt that was passing him by. "Best bird I ever seen. Bird made for shagging. Considered it for a moment, mind you, only for a moment, because birds are my thing, you know."
"Your thing," echoed young Mr. Goodhall.
"My thing," said Michael, who was a bit too good looking for his age (which was closer to forty than he cared to admit) and who knew the advantages and disadvantages of nearly every beauty product made for the distinguished modern male, turning himself into a product, ready for consumption. "Love the birds, I do."
"Certainly sounds like it," said young Mr. Goodhall, who wasn't so sure that women liked being called birds and who'd never heard one of them refer to another as such.
"Love the birds," repeated Michael, before he noticed that one of his nails wasn't completely perfect and had been racked a little at its tip. The PR man cursed quietly and spent nearly a minute playing with that perceived imperfection. "Can't get enough of them, I can."
"I don't know if could ever do that," said young Mr. Goodhall.
"What you do," said young Mr. Goodhall.
"Always were the romantic," said Michael. "Has its place, romance does, has its place, that's right. Place in books and movies, not in the real world. Real world, romance is for people like you."
"Like me?" asked young Mr. Goodhall.
"You know what I mean," said Michael.
"Afraid I don't," said young Mr. Goodhall.
From within Michal Robbins' suit, perfectly tailored and fitting in all the right places, came a humming sound. He motioned to young Mr. Goodhall to hold that thought. Whatever that thought might have been, it had to wait, while the PR manager took out his phone and touched it, the way you would touch a lover.
"Kate!" he said. "Been just talking about you, love! Yes, yes, with Goodhall. Thought I'd take him out for a walk, poor guy doesn't get out of the house without somebody yanking his chain. What? No. Goodhall. You met him. Remember? Tall, curly hair, kind of my age, he made you that watch I gave you last birthday? Great ass. Yes. Hey, your words, not mine. Yeah, that's the one. How is life treating you today, sweetheart?"
Michael gave young Mr. Goodhall an apologetic grimace, mimicking with his hand a talking mouth.
Yak. Yak. Yak.
"Tonight?" Michael said into his phone. "Yes, sure. How about Indian? Your parents? I thought your Dad loved Indian. Oh. Okay. Not what he told me, but okay. Thai it is, then. Yes. Love you too, honey."
He clicked off the connection and shrugged.
"Kate told me to tell you that you have a great ass," said Michael. "Amazing, this woman is. Knows all the right things to say, kind of woman who knows a good conversation. That's the kind you bring home to your Mum."
"But not the kind you shag –"
"– make love to," interrupted Michael.
"There's a difference?"
"Hell, yes," said Michael, "there is a difference. You get engaged to someone, you get to make love. Good thing, too, good thing. Not great, though. You get married, a great shag's the least of your worries. Why not? Because, mate, it will never happen again. Not with the wife, at the very least."
"Uh, okay," said young Mr. Goodhall, who didn't know what else to say.Now, don't get me wrong. It wasn't that young Mr. Goodhall had never been intimate, and you can rest assured that most of those times (a scientific survey would likely place it at 78 percent, give or take a few percentage points) such intimacy had been shared with somebody other than himself.
So, for better or worse, the concept of the shag was not unknown to him, while the concept of making love, however, still remained an elusive, somewhat abstract theory that involved not just any woman, but the right woman, the possibility of dinner and conversation and stolen glances and touches before and a great likelihood of cuddling after.
"Don't believe me, do you?" asked Michael.
"Well, it's not that I don't believe you – "
" – which would the reason you're the romantic," said Michael. "And that you're still single. Not that you don't believe me, but that you do believe you can shag the one you love, or that she would shag you right back."
"But you and Kate – " began young Mr. Goodhall.
"We have most things in common," said Michael. "Note that I'm saying most things. Not all things. Got to go with a compromise, if you want to get a good life, mate. Kate and I, we run in the same circles, we are good partners. She's got my back, I got hers, if you know what I mean. She got the contacts, I got the ambition, we both got the blessings of our parents. We play this right, everybody wins. Marriage, that's what it is, a limited partnership. It were any different, wouldn't have to register it with the state, now, would you?"
"Never thought about it that way," said young Mr. Goodhall. And he wasn't lying.
He never had thought about it that way. And yes, this could have very well been the reason he had neither girlfriend nor wife, or so at least his friend thought.
"Dear god, man," said Michael, with a smile. "The kind of bird you looking for, it don't drop out of the sky, you know?"
Well, as far as birds go, they did appear to be dropping out of the sky with an alarming regularity.
The newspaper young Mr. Goodhall was reading gave all of four pages to the sexual misadventures of one member of parliament, complete with numerous photographs and including a rather ridiculous one he had put up on that internet hookup site, taken by his phone and showing him without common sense (plus without a shirt).
One page, though, was offered to the flocks of birds that had dropped out of the skies by the hundreds in various places around the globe, from Alabama to Finland, and while the member of parliament may have been confused sexually, these birds appeared to have been merely confused. Explanations given by experts, put in little box-outs next to screaming headlines, named all the usual suspects. Climate change and its religious twin, the apocalypse, were the day's favorites, with the apocalypse leading the lists of London's bookmakers by a resounding 1 to 10, so money spent on climate change would net you a decent profit.
Young Mr. Goodhall, crunching on one of the crisps that was part of his lunch, had another explanation altogether, however.
Perhaps these birds had just been without a place to go to, he thought to himself, no home to return to and nothing to live for. Staying in flight for so long would tire you. And sooner or later, you would lose all strength to continue and simply stop. And let nature take its course.
Young Mr. Goodhall knew how they felt. To keep on, to struggle and have no end in sight. It would be easy, yes, so easy to simply give up.
But not today. Maybe tomorrow, he thought to himself, but tomorrow was another day. Tomorrow would always be another day.
He glanced at his watch. It was twenty-two minutes past noon, and it had taken him a full sixteen minutes for lunch, which was more than his usual time spent on food and drink. But he felt it warm his belly and give a little of that fire to his soul, and enough strength to allow for a simple, saddened smile. He waved at Misty McColl to bring her over to the table.
"Now, what did I tell you?" Misty McColl said when she stopped by, all smiles and attitude.
"It was good," said young Mr. Goodhall.
"It's the red peppers," said Misty.
"I'll have to pay for that," smiled young Mr. Goodhall.
"Not until this evening," laughed Misty McColl, who knew exactly in what way you'd have to pay for a generous amount of red peppers. "Or perhaps tonight. I hope you got a good stomach. Burns on the way in, burns on the way out."
Young Mr. Goodhall laughed. "What do I owe you?"
"12 pounds and seventy," Misty said. Young Mr. Goodhall took out the crisp Twenty given to him earlier and slipped it into Misty's open palm.
"Make it fifteen," he said.
"Don't mind if I do," said Misty. She slipped back a crumpled up, old Fiver and asked, "see you tomorrow, then?"
"Tomorrow it is," said young Mr. Goodhall.
He made his way out of the coffee shop, not forgetting to nod at its owner with some appreciation, even though Bruce Newman was too busy to notice, preparing the next orders.
Outside the store, it was cold.
Colder than before, which was unusual for London, since the city liked the people like a mother and tried its best – most of the time – to show its best face for them, but there now was a cold draft that had come up and made its way deep into its heart, and even with the red pepper'ed fire in his belly, young Mr. Goodhall could feel the cold taking him in its grip.
It was then that he looked up to the heavens.
It was then that he saw the angel.